The Premier League title race and Women's World Cup - what to look forward to in 2019

By Phil McNultyChief football writer

As 2018 comes to an end, everyone will reflect on an eventful year during which England won a World Cup penalty shootout, Liverpool lost one of the most incident-packed Champions League finals ever, and Manchester City won the title in record-breaking style.

But what do we have to look forward to in 2019?

The most exciting Premier League title race in years

Fernandinho and Mohamed Salah
Manchester City and Liverpool drew 0-0 at Anfield in October - but how will their January meeting go?

Manchester City's sky-blue ribbons were already being tied to the Premier League trophy this time last year as Pep Guardiola's side established a 14-point lead after only 18 games. The race to the tape was a formality.

Not this year.

This is shaping up as the most exciting season in years as Liverpool match, and indeed lead, City while Spurs and Chelsea, albeit in a more understated manner, make claims of their own.

The excitement and anticipation surrounding this season can be illustrated in managers, players and supporters already weighing up the potential long-term damage of dropped points well before the turn of the year.

The season is made even more exciting by the thrilling brand of football on offer from the teams chasing the big prize - from Guardiola's City to Jurgen Klopp's vibrant, attacking Liverpool side. Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino and newcomer Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea are also determined to pursue trophies in the most attractive manner, while the animated Unai Emery has been a breath of fresh air at Arsenal.

And while life on the field has been dull at Manchester United, a familiar acrimonious decline into another pre-Christmas dismissal for Jose Mourinho has given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the chance to illuminate the 'Theatre Of Dreams' once more.

The Premier League has seen dramatic finishes in recent seasons, such as when Manchester City pipped Manchester United on goal difference in 2011-12, and when Liverpool stumbled at the finishing line to lose out to City two years later. This season could be just as dramatic.

City won the title by 19 points from Manchester United last season and had a goal difference 33 ahead of their closest rivals in that department - Liverpool. It was a procession - but this could go to the wire.

City's surprise defeat at home to Crystal Palace just before Christmas - after Liverpool had beaten Wolves the day before - means Guardiola's men are in the unusual position of playing catch-up, with four points separating the top two.

One of the most vital acts in the drama will be played out when City and Liverpool face each other at Etihad Stadium on 3 January.

The Women's World Cup

England manager Phil Neville excited by 'mouth-watering' tie

The ever-expanding global women's game gets its greatest showcase once more in France next summer - and expectations have never been higher as its profile continues to rise.

The draw has only added to the anticipation as England, managed by Phil Neville, face Scotland, guided by head coach Shelley Kerr, in their opening game in Nice on 9 June.

Argentina and Japan make up England and Scotland's group.

The Lionesses are making their fifth World Cup appearance and will be hoping to improve on their 2015 performance, when they lost 2-1 to Japan in the semi-final.

England are fourth in the world rankings behind the United States, Germany and France, with Scotland 20th.

And the SheBelieves Cup, in which England will face Brazil, the United States and Japan in late February and early March, will provide an intriguing measure of their progress under Neville.

The final of the Women's World Cup will be staged in the Stade de Lyon on 7 July.

A Scottish Premiership thriller?

Steven Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers
Steven Gerrard's Rangers are playing their part in the first proper Scottish title race in years

Celtic have been conducting a procession to the Scottish Premiership title for the past seven seasons - but it is all looking a lot tighter north of the border this season to set up a potentially thrilling 2019.

A combination of ingredients are in the mix to make this a potent cocktail and allow Scotland to throw back some insults at the English about one-sided title races - especially after Manchester City's stroll to the title last term.

The gap is no longer wider than the Clyde estuary.

Steven Gerrard's arrival at Rangers was always going to add spice and it has not only raised sunken hopes at Ibrox but also coincided with a perhaps inevitable dip in the standards of a Celtic side that has carried all before them in manager Brendan Rodgers' first two seasons.

It would, however, be patronising to simply focus on the Old Firm. Scottish football is offering much more.

Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Kilmarnock have all been top of the table this season - with Steve Clarke's work at Killie an outstanding piece of management.

Aberdeen and Hibernian have also produced evidence of the ability to challenge and overcome the supposed natural order, and the first Ibrox meeting between Gerrard and his former Liverpool manager on 29 December is heavily loaded with significance.

It is shaping up to be a 2019 to relish in Scotland.

Can England bring home the Uefa Nations League?

England capitalised on reaching their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years by reaching the finals of the inaugural Uefa Nations League with their first win in Spain for 31 years, and by exacting revenge on Croatia with a dramatic late 2-1 win at Wembley.

It built on the feel-good factor engendered in Russia, maintained momentum and increased the belief manager Gareth Southgate has a squad offering real optimism for the future.

Now they have a great chance to turn potential into something tangible in Portugal next June.

England face Ronald Koeman's rejuvenated Netherlands in the semi-final, and Portugal play Switzerland in the other last-four game.

No-one should kid themselves winning this would end the so-called "years of hurt" since the 1966 World Cup, as this tournament - which has been a surprise success and added a new dimension to the international scene - is very much in its infancy and way behind the majors like the World Cup and the Euros.

But success breeds success and it would be a sign of England's progress and development under Southgate should they be able to win silverware as they re-establish themselves as a serious power in the game.

England's Under-21s will also be hoping to add to the success of the under-17s and under-20s World Cup winners when they take part in the Euros in Italy and San Marino in June.

This is another tournament that is growing in stature each time, and Aidy Boothroyd's side will have high hopes with talent such as Manchester City's Phil Foden, Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho, and Mason Mount - the Chelsea youngster on loan at Derby County - to potentially call on.

They will face France, Romania and Croatia in their group games and, like England's seniors, will hope to improve on a bitter semi-final disappointment after losing on penalties to Germany in Tychy, Poland.

This is an exciting time for England at all levels, and 2019 might just provide further evidence of how bright the future might be.

Another Championship fight to the finish?

Marcelo Bielsa
Could this finally be Leeds' season under Argentine wildcard Marcelo Bielsa?

Is there any division more difficult to get out of than the Championship?

Some of England's greatest clubs have dropped out of the Premier League then found the return journey so competitive it proves impossible.

If proof is needed, just look at those jockeying for position at the top of the table.

Leeds United, under the guidance of the maverick but wonderfully innovative Marcelo Bielsa, have played some stunning football as they attempt to reclaim the place at the top table which has not been theirs since 2004, while Norwich City have been outstanding under Daniel Farke.

And that is just the start.

West Bromwich Albion have set their sights on instant promotion under Darren Moore while Derby County are making strides as Frank Lampard settles into his first managerial job.

Chris Wilder is proving once more what an outstanding operator he is at his beloved Sheffield United while Middlesbrough's Tony Pulis - not everyone's cup of tea - has successfully navigated the Championship's course and distance before.

And are things stirring at Aston Villa now boyhood fan Dean Smith has succeeded Steve Bruce?

This is the division that produces tension and excitement every year because the price of success is so great and the price of failure can be so expensive.

Expect no different in 2019.


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